scorecardQueen Elizabeth embraced 'our great imperial family' but failed to reckon with the empire's subjugation and plunder
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Queen Elizabeth embraced 'our great imperial family' but failed to reckon with the empire's subjugation and plunder

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Queen Elizabeth embraced 'our great imperial family' but failed to reckon with the empire's subjugation and plunder
LifeInternational4 min read
  • Queen Elizabeth, Britain's longest-reigning monarch, died at 96 on Thursday. She was in Kenya in 1952 when she learned she would be queen.

When Elizabeth II descended from a treehouse in Kenya on February 6, 1952, to learn that her father had died and she would be queen, she at once became the face of a crumbling empire and of a country still recovering from the ruins of war.

It was also a nation that was reinventing itself, and Elizabeth and her family would be critical to that enterprise. What she lacked in power over the next 70 years of her reign, Queen Elizabeth — who died on Thursday at the age of 96 — more than made up for in international respectability and admiration.

But back in 1952, Elizabeth and her husband, Prince Philip, had almost skipped the Kenya leg of their imperial tour. The colony was in the early stages of an armed rebellion. Since the beginning of the year, Dedan Kimathi's Kenya Land and Freedom Army had been engaged in a campaign of sabotage and assassination. The situation had spooked the couple, and it was actually the fear of ridicule that kept the trip on track.

The Kenya Emergency, or the Mau Mau uprising, as the world would know it, would spark a savage reaction from Queen Elizabeth's government that would be completely at odds with the genteel, proper and dutiful image of Britishness she would cultivate over the next 70 years, as well as a sweeping cover up that was more at ease with it.

In 1917, Elizabeth's grandfather, King George V, had refashioned the monarchy as a British institution, renaming it the House of Windsor and discarding its prior appellation as the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, whose emphasis on its German roots had become untenable. The King's private secretary, Lord Stamfordham, who invented the new name, also came up with a raison d'etre for the institution, writing: "We must endeavor to induce the thinking working classes, socialist and others, to regard the Crown not as a mere figurehead, but as a living power for good affecting the interests and social wellbeing of all classes."

Thirty years later, while accompanying her ailing father George VI on an imperial tour to South Africa and Rhodesia, the then Princess Elizabeth sought to cement his attempt to recast the crumbling Empire as a benevolent and free association of self-governing nations – a worldwide commonwealth – with the monarchy as its head.

In her famous 21st birthday speech delivered from Cape Town, she described her subjects as members of "our great imperial family" to whose service she would devote her life.

"If we all go forward together," she declared "we shall be able to make of this ancient commonwealth, which we all love so dearly, an even grander thing — more free, more prosperous, more happy and a more powerful influence for good in the world."

As the actions of the British government would demonstrate over the course of the next decades of her reign, the new reality would be built on a systematic and sustained effort to erase the truth of colonial subjugation and plunder. The UK withdrawal from its colonial dominions was accompanied by the destruction, theft, and concealment of huge stacks of embarrassing documents, including details of the horrific, systemic abuse and murder of detainees during the 1950s emergency in Kenya.

Being a constitutional monarch, the Queen may not necessarily have been aware of all that was done in her name or had the power to change it, but the failure to openly address it nonetheless remains a blot on her legacy as head of the commonwealth. This is especially the case in light of the Black Lives Matter movement in the UK that sought a more accurate rendition of the history of British imperial history and the accusations of embedded racism directed at the Royal Family itself.

Ultimately, under Elizabeth II, the monarchy has succeeded in becoming what George V had hoped it would be — a quintessentially British institution. But with that comes the baggage of identification with British imperial history and its many misadventures around the world. The carefully cultivated air of mystique, simplicity, and devotion to duty will not insulate it from uncomfortable questions about the past and the present. If anything, it speaks to the continuing lack of accountability for historical wrongs.

That may not be what Elizabeth had bargained for as a 21-year-old. It must have been painful, in her twilight years, to see the institution she devoted her life to accused of encompassing the same racism that appalled her father on that tour 74 years ago, with alleged worries about the complexion of Archie, her great-grandson and whose mother, Meghan Markle, is bi-racial.

Still, the Queen has been true to her vow, despite the tremendous cost the monarchy has taken on her family. It was not a burden she asked for, nor one she would have expected to have thrust upon her at such an early age. But it is one that she has borne with a remarkable grace and not a small measure of stoicism. It is probably fair to say she did the best she could with the hand fate dealt her.

Patrick Gathara is a cartoonist, writer, and columnist. He lives in Kenya.